We collaborated with our friends at Junior Press for their second issue. Our editor Roisin Agnew wrote a short essay on aloneness and cities in response to Ellius Grace's photographs taken over several months of solitary travel.
I remember hearing someone talk about how the thing they enjoyed most about casual sex was the chance to be inside strangers’ houses and see how they lived. The way they lit their rooms, where they kept the toilet paper, how many chairs they had at their table, what colours they liked to surround themselves with, their levels of cleanliness and house pride.
I think of that description, of wanting to be in a stranger’s house looking at their life through their objects and daily surroundings, whenever I think of the feeling of finding yourself alone in a new city.
I wish there was an idiom to describe the comfort you can find in novelty, some oxymoronic shorthand. At home when I was growing up we had a big coffee table book called Making It New. In it were black and white photos of people having picnics on beaches in Southern France, dressed in beautiful costumes and themed clothes. It was a book about Gerald and Sarah Murphy, the American artists and socialites on whom F. Scott Fitzgerald based Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is The Night. I became obsessed with that book. Adults playing dress-up in a foreign country, putting on masks, everything intentional and beautiful, that awesome phrase - Making It New.
The novelty you experience when you’re alone in a new city is unlike any other. It allows you to shed yourself and it intensifies every novel detail and experience. You are freed of context and the city assumes a unique quality of newness. The loneliness that modern urban spaces bring has a “particular flavour” as Olivia Laing puts it in The Lonely City. She gives the most vivid description of what loneliness feels like when she describes the pervasiveness of glass in cities and its effect on her. “As soon as I arrived in the city, I had the sense that I was trapped behind glass. I couldn’t reach out or make contact, and at the same time I felt dangerously exposed.” It’s the most evocative description of loneliness I’ve come across. But alongside Laing’s flavour of loneliness there’s a particular brand of sought out solitariness which is no less characteristic of modern cities, and that’s aloneness.
To me aloneness means wanting to engage with whatever comes your way without the filters of friendship or love. Fundamentally it’s different to loneliness in that it’s about choice and more recently it feels like it has become a coveted state of being, an unachievable nirvana marketed as lifestyle goals. It has real social cachet. It’s the desired end point in meditation, a spa weekend, a selfie, a run. The Ikea catalogue exemplifies how the desire for aloneness is designed and built-into our homes and offices. Statistics show that as our cities continue to grow and fill with people we feel evermore lonely in them. More and more people want to live alone. Research shows that cities are bad for our mental health. They make us sick. It’s strange then that we perpetuate this self-annihilating cycle of crowds and loneliness and that true aloneness remains such a rarefied commodity. It’s hard to achieve maybe because it’s a form of resistance - a resistance to both hyper-connectedness and loneliness, a liminal space hacked out in between. It’s hard to drown out the noise and constant contact and I’ve begun to appreciate why aloneness is so highly valued.
More than any other experience I’ve had in life being alone in a new city is what has felt closest to total freedom. I could not be a new me if I’d come here with someone else, I could not reconfigure and figure things out if this were a city I was familiar with. I’ve been lonely but mainly I’ve been alone. I’ve had time to realise who I’ve become without self-indulgent introspection. You ease into it without noticing. I have 7 beauty spots on my abdomen, I don’t enjoy cereal anymore, my laugh is a little too loud, I like getting out of the house in the morning without showering, I love mint green. Everything I do is intentional and not out of habit.
Since being here, in the new city, I’ve thought of Luigi Pirandello’s book, The Late Mattia Pascal. Mattia is accidentally pronounced dead in a case of mistaken identity and takes advantage of the opportunity to move to Monte Carlo and Rome to create his ideal life full of the things he felt he’d been missing out on. Things don’t end as you’d expect. But the idea of death and rebirth as possible in a new city appeals to me. Your circle of friends diminishes or vanishes, your references are gone, you are nothing and fully potentialised at the same time. It’s a form of reincarnation.
This city will stop being new, aloneness is tricky and fleeting, and there will be more selves to shed as time passes. But at least there is always the possibility of more cities and the prospect of making it new again.